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Paul Sparkes: Sea and schooner were his life


The memory of a good friend is a lasting and cherished thing. There was testimony to that when I visited Nelson and Eileen Doucette at their home in St. John’s two weeks ago. They had suggested I do a column on “Uncle” Joe Farrell. Mind you, he has been gone now 45 years, but with little stories, quirks and quips, and many examples of the man’s kindness, they brought his story back because there are always new people who would enjoy a glimpse of his life.

Joe Farrell (who, for some reason, always spelled his first name “Jeo”) was born at Bay du Nord, Fortune Bay, in 1885. So you know right away, he was born of the sea. And if the winds, the waves and the salt water were in his blood, so were games of hundred-and-twenties and gin rummy, good meals, friends and families (not to forget that drop of Big Dipper) and ships — especially banking vessels.

Nelson Doucette showed me on a crew printout for the Bluenose that Farrell had been a crewman on the renowned Nova Scotia schooner in 1938. She was a working vessel that took time out, so to speak, to race others in her class, like the sleek-hulled Gertrude L. Thebaud.

Farrell even worked on construction of the Bluenose in the 1920s. His stint aboard was under the legendary skipper Angus Walters, who once referred to Farrell as a “No. 1 man.” Among those who have succeeded in making the sea their working partner and not their master, there can be no better compliment.

Farrell spent some 40 years in the bank fishery, roughly from the turn of the century to the end of the Second World War. He sailed out of Boston and out of Lunenburg, from the latter port in an assortment of vessels well-known in the maritime annals of Nova Scotia.

Joe’s role on board was that of cook, and Doucette recalls that Uncle Joe had a reputation for producing good foods, well-suited to hard-working men at sea. When his fishing career was over, Farrell took up carpentry, where he was no neophyte. He was still working on houses in St. John’s into his 84th year and with a coworker who was 92.

Joe and his wife Veronica had no children but in his later years, he lived with his niece, Mary Stewart, at Saunders Place in St. John’s and he built ship models. Veronica had died in 1959. 

When Nelson Doucette was a student at Memorial University he boarded in the Stewart household and thoroughly enjoyed coming home from campus and looking in to see Uncle Joe’s progress on the models. Farrell was a man for whom the phrase “never an idle moment” was surely composed.

If a residential area in St. John’s doesn’t seem like the sort of location for a man-of-the-sea in retirement, Farrell was fortunate in that the home afforded a view of St. John’s harbour. His model schooners bore lines echoing the poetry in wood of the originals on which he had sailed; the hull of his Bluenose model was a full seven feet. With masts in place, all rigging strung and the sails unfurled, the model commanded a fair portion of the room.

Uncle Joe’s affection for close friends was evident when he took up a piece of leftover sail cloth and made an apron for Eileen Doucette, complete with pale green ruffle.

 In August 1959, Maurice Burke wrote a profile of Farrell for Atlantic Advocate magazine. At the time, Farrell, in his 75th year, was about to launch his seven-foot Bluenose into Quidi Vidi Lake for sea trials.

Burke grew up in St. Jacques and might therefore be called a neighbour of Farrell’s. Of Joe Farrell, he wrote in part, “as you listen to his yarns of the old days, told with the salty humour so common to the men of his time, the bank fishery seems to come alive again and it is not 1959 anymore, but 1900, 1910, 1920 or 1930. The Grand Banks are teeming with cod and the majestic schooners go gliding by, reaping the silver harvest of the deep.”  

Burke noted that Farrell’s work on his model boats “is a masterpiece of perfection right down to the last detail, sails, masts, rigging, windlass and hatches … it takes many painstaking hours of work … in the basement of his home he spends hours studying actual blueprints of the vessels and makes his models to an exact scale.”

We do not know where any of Joe Farrell’s models are now. There is, however, a banking schooner refurbished by the renowned Otto Kelland displayed at the Marine Institute. Some believe the hull was actually made by Farrell and could be the hull of his Bluenose. If so, then possibly two masters of the model-builder’s art collaborated on a keepsake for us all.

But of equal importance are the living memories today of a kindly, talented and tireless Newfoundlander. As Eileen Doucette recalls with a laugh, “every Christmas Uncle Joe would buy himself a new suit of clothes!”

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Joe Farrell (who, for some reason, always spelled his first name “Jeo”) was born at Bay du Nord, Fortune Bay, in 1885. So you know right away, he was born of the sea. And if the winds, the waves and the salt water were in his blood, so were games of hundred-and-twenties and gin rummy, good meals, friends and families (not to forget that drop of Big Dipper) and ships — especially banking vessels.

Nelson Doucette showed me on a crew printout for the Bluenose that Farrell had been a crewman on the renowned Nova Scotia schooner in 1938. She was a working vessel that took time out, so to speak, to race others in her class, like the sleek-hulled Gertrude L. Thebaud.

Farrell even worked on construction of the Bluenose in the 1920s. His stint aboard was under the legendary skipper Angus Walters, who once referred to Farrell as a “No. 1 man.” Among those who have succeeded in making the sea their working partner and not their master, there can be no better compliment.

Farrell spent some 40 years in the bank fishery, roughly from the turn of the century to the end of the Second World War. He sailed out of Boston and out of Lunenburg, from the latter port in an assortment of vessels well-known in the maritime annals of Nova Scotia.

Joe’s role on board was that of cook, and Doucette recalls that Uncle Joe had a reputation for producing good foods, well-suited to hard-working men at sea. When his fishing career was over, Farrell took up carpentry, where he was no neophyte. He was still working on houses in St. John’s into his 84th year and with a coworker who was 92.

Joe and his wife Veronica had no children but in his later years, he lived with his niece, Mary Stewart, at Saunders Place in St. John’s and he built ship models. Veronica had died in 1959. 

When Nelson Doucette was a student at Memorial University he boarded in the Stewart household and thoroughly enjoyed coming home from campus and looking in to see Uncle Joe’s progress on the models. Farrell was a man for whom the phrase “never an idle moment” was surely composed.

If a residential area in St. John’s doesn’t seem like the sort of location for a man-of-the-sea in retirement, Farrell was fortunate in that the home afforded a view of St. John’s harbour. His model schooners bore lines echoing the poetry in wood of the originals on which he had sailed; the hull of his Bluenose model was a full seven feet. With masts in place, all rigging strung and the sails unfurled, the model commanded a fair portion of the room.

Uncle Joe’s affection for close friends was evident when he took up a piece of leftover sail cloth and made an apron for Eileen Doucette, complete with pale green ruffle.

 In August 1959, Maurice Burke wrote a profile of Farrell for Atlantic Advocate magazine. At the time, Farrell, in his 75th year, was about to launch his seven-foot Bluenose into Quidi Vidi Lake for sea trials.

Burke grew up in St. Jacques and might therefore be called a neighbour of Farrell’s. Of Joe Farrell, he wrote in part, “as you listen to his yarns of the old days, told with the salty humour so common to the men of his time, the bank fishery seems to come alive again and it is not 1959 anymore, but 1900, 1910, 1920 or 1930. The Grand Banks are teeming with cod and the majestic schooners go gliding by, reaping the silver harvest of the deep.”  

Burke noted that Farrell’s work on his model boats “is a masterpiece of perfection right down to the last detail, sails, masts, rigging, windlass and hatches … it takes many painstaking hours of work … in the basement of his home he spends hours studying actual blueprints of the vessels and makes his models to an exact scale.”

We do not know where any of Joe Farrell’s models are now. There is, however, a banking schooner refurbished by the renowned Otto Kelland displayed at the Marine Institute. Some believe the hull was actually made by Farrell and could be the hull of his Bluenose. If so, then possibly two masters of the model-builder’s art collaborated on a keepsake for us all.

But of equal importance are the living memories today of a kindly, talented and tireless Newfoundlander. As Eileen Doucette recalls with a laugh, “every Christmas Uncle Joe would buy himself a new suit of clothes!”

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail psparkes@thetelegram.com.

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